Today was what Ms. Cupcake and I had come for. We visited three of the villages along the Sepik – Palembei, Yetchen and Kanganaman. Each of the three is famed for its renowned artisans and carvers and each of Palembei and Kanganaman have beautiful spirit houses.
|Carved totem poles.|
In order to understand just how isolated and infrequently visited these places are by outsiders, it is important, I think, to give some perspective on the size of ongoing western influence in the area. It was a battleground area in WW2 and therefore each of the Australians and the Japanese had set up camps in different villages along the river. Palembei, for example, was inhabited by the Japanese. Since the end of WW2, however, influence has been slight. The total middle Sepik region may see 300 – 400 tourists a year, and those will only visit certain villages in the region. So, breaking it down, a village might see about 100-150 outsiders in an entire year. The influence is slight and thus despite having largely moved to western dress, the ceremonies, initiations and traditions continue to survive and thrive in the area.
|Remains of the bombed spirit house|
Palembei had two spirit houses. The first was bombed by the Japanese during WW2 and only the large, beautifully carved poles remained. The clan then split the spirit houses to represent each of the two large clans in the village. The carvings were beautiful and the legends and histories powerful. The first had two large links of knots hanging from the ceiling – like what you would put together to count the days until Christmas. There were more than 100 of them. These links each represented a “trophy” taken during the headhunting days.
|Ceremonial flutes being stored on the spirit house|
It turns out headhunting was even more prevalent than you ever would have thought. Why? Well, because it wasn’t really viewed as war, but instead essentially as a sport. Each village had its team of warriors who were responsible for raiding the other villages and taking heads. Each head was a trophy that represented a knot in the links, and, formerly, an addition to the collection of decorated skills (those are now gone). At the end of each headhunting season (it was only for a few months a year), tallies were taken and the village with the most was the “champion”, e.g. the strongest and most powerful village in the Sepik area. Pretty incredible stuff.
Palembei’s spirit houses were beautiful, but Kanganaman was beyond description. We entered the village to the sound of the beating Garamut drum eerily passing over the trees. As we got closer, you saw two men dancing inside of huge woven masks around an extremely large spirit house (it was easily double the size of the other ones). The oldest spirit house along the Sepik, the building was massive and in the open lawn with the blood stones before it, the figures dancing to the Garamut drum was otherworldly. The whole experience was breathtaking.
Yetchen was a much smaller village, but one famous for its crocodile dance and beautiful woven masks. Clearly the two go together. Along with the beating Garamut drums, a team of dancers, two of them wearing massive crocodile costumes came dancing out of the spirit house. The crocodile men bobbed back and forth , with the oven crocodile jaw opening each time they moved. It was a hilarious. The funniest part, though, was when the elder was explaining the dance at the end. We were commenting on how beautiful the masks were and he abruptly complained that the young men had not been able to properly decorate the masks with the right leaves due to the earlier flooding and thus the masks were essentially subpar. We certainly did not notice.
We picked up carved artifacts in each village. What we really wanted to take home, of course, was the relic totem poles from the old spirit houses, but clearly that wasn’t possible. Weighing hundreds of pounds, God knows what that shipping cost would have been. That said, we’ve bought some very large masks, ceremonial bowls, food hooks, maselei’s and other fun items. The carvings are so detailed and beautiful – I am sure my Dad the furniture maker will pick up some interesting tips.
The Sepik is quite a place. Every village is populated with its carved initiated men who run the show and each is enchanted by the powers of its ancestors. This comes through as the Garamet drums are struck and you feel like you are walking through a place that hasn’t really been touched in centuries. This is why we came to PNG and we are very glad that we did.